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Lawsuit Filed Against Constellation Brands Over Mondavi's Alleged Misuse of Napa’s Famed To Kalon Vineyard Name

The most famous vineyard in California is back in court. Vintner Jeremy Nickel claims Robert Mondavi illegally obtained To Kalon trademark
The To Kalon vineyard in Oakville is considered a prime spot for Cabernet, but there have been many disputes over its borders.
The To Kalon vineyard in Oakville is considered a prime spot for Cabernet, but there have been many disputes over its borders.

Aaron Romano
Posted: March 25, 2019

Another battle has broken out over who can use the name of Napa Valley’s most famous vineyard, To Kalon. The Vineyard House, a winery owned by Jeremy Nickel, son of the late Far Niente proprietor Gil Nickel, filed suit against Constellation Brands last week, claiming that a Constellation subsidiary, Robert Mondavi Corporation, fraudulently obtained a trademark of To Kalon and that Constellation has marketed it deceptively.

Nickel also contends that a portion of The Vineyard House property is part of the original To Kalon Vineyard, and thus should be entitled to use the name for its own purposes. But historic documents suggest otherwise.

The lawsuit may sound familiar. Mondavi trademarked "To Kalon" in 1988 and "To Kalon Vineyard" in 1994. In 2000, vineyard magnate Andy Beckstoffer, who owns a portion of To Kalon Vineyard, began selling the fruit as To Kalon to vintners, including Fred Schrader. Mondavi sued Schrader Cellars in 2002 for putting To Kalon on its labels.

Beckstoffer countersued, arguing that Mondavi was misleading consumers by including grapes from vineyards that were not part of the original To Kalon Vineyard in wines with the name on their label. Beckstoffer also claimed that Mondavi had fraudulently obtained the trademark. The case eventually was settled, and Beckstoffer was granted rights to use To Kalon on wines from his portion of the vineyards.

In 2017, Constellation applied for two additional trademarks: "To-Kalon Wine Company" and "To-Kalon Vineyard Company." Beckstoffer again raised opposition, suggesting that reviving a To Kalon brand would alter its meaning, which has been used as a vineyard designation since. Constellation ultimately abandoned the trademark applications. (Constellation also bought Schrader Cellars that year.)

The new suit raises old questions: Can a vineyard name be trademarked? And what exactly is the true To Kalon?

Nickel’s suit claims that his property includes acreage that dates to the original To Kalon Vineyard, established by Hamilton Walker Crabb in 1868. Nickel acquired this property after the death of his father. The estate is just west of Far Niente, and its neighbors include Harlan Estate and Futo. In the lawsuit, Nickel asks the court to revoke Constellation’s trademarks and to allow him to use the To Kalon name on his own wines.

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"Jeremy [Nickel] cares very much about the integrity of the To Kalon name, and believes everyone that owns a piece of the To Kalon property should be entitled to use the name," said Vineyard House spokesperson Larry Kamer. He also said that Nickel believes that grapes are being used for Constellation’s To Kalon wines that are not from To Kalon, though neither he nor the complaint provide evidence.

Several wineries can claim ownership of portions of Crabb’s original property, but under the current trademark, vintners can only use the To Kalon name if they buy grapes from Beckstoffer or Constellation.

But there has also been much debate over the years as to where the historical boundaries lie. Over his lifetime, Crabb expanded his Oakville estate several times. How much of that land should be considered part of To Kalon?

The National Park Service’s Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) recently added documentation about To Kalon to the Library of Congress, based on both old records and geological surveys. Following a methodology laid out by the National Register of Historic Places, the report defines To Kalon’s boundaries to include all historic features of the property, but not "buffer zones'' or acreage not directly contributing to the significance of the property. This means hillside properties owned by Crabb or subsequent owners that have only recently been planted with vines cannot claim to be part of the historic vineyard.

In the HALS report, the Nickel parcel is documented as part of Crabb's estate but not as part of To Kalon. The map shows the To Kalon Vineyard boundary stopping at Oakville Grade Road. One of Crabb’s probates cited in the survey shows that the parcel on the other side of the road, where The Vineyard House is located, was used for timber production and a reservoir, and was not planted to grapevines during Crabb's time. Subsequent aerial photography and interviews show that it wasn't planted to vines until around 1980.

The lawsuit could be an uphill battle for Jeremy Nickel, who is no stranger to legal fights. He was an heir to his father’s Far Niente estate, when Gil Nickel died in 2003. In 2011, Jeremy Nickel filed a lawsuit against three members of the board of directors of his family’s wine companies, claiming that they misused company funds and gave themselves raises. The management fought Nickel’s suit, calling it "meritless," and other Nickel family members sided with the board. The matter was eventually settled when the winery was sold to GI Partners in 2017. Nickel was bought out of his shares, and is no longer affiliated with Far Niente.

Alexandra Wagner, a spokeswoman for Constellation, called Nickel’s allegations regarding To Kalon without merit. "Constellation Brands is committed to operating with the highest degree of ethics and integrity and in full accordance with all applicable laws and regulations," Wagner told Wine Spectator via email.

Kamer says Nickel is hoping for clarity that To Kalon means To Kalon. "It dilutes the value of the name to be treated in the manner in which Mondavi and Constellation are using it."

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